My wife, kids, and I decided to escape the August heat by driving an hour-and-a-half... up. We live in Denver, and the mountains are a welcomed reprieve from trickling-summer sweat. Once arrived at our chalet, I did what I do—I started perusing the book shelves. I stumbled across a faded-yellow paperback, The Cornerstone by Zoe Oldenbourg. The cover proudly boasted, “A masterpiece of historical fiction.” I thumbed through it, did a quick Wikipedia search, and, liking what I saw, decided to sink my stained teeth into it.
The Cornerstone takes place in 13th century France and follows the lives of three generations of barons living in the province of Champagne. The oldest of the three, Ansiau, abdicates his baronage before setting off on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He leaves his holdings, Linnières, to his hedonistic son Herbert who wields his power brutally, recklessly, and, at times, arbitrarily.
Oldenbourg then effortlessly weaves the tale of Haugenier, Herbert’s only son, into the complex tapestry that is the baronage of Linnières. If, through Ansiau, we see the French countryside, 13th century crusades, and the arid Levantine landscape, then through Haugenier we read of the realities of romanticism, chivalry, and courtly love. Haugenier, early on, pledges his love to the Lady Marie, a married but barren woman. Tormented by both his passions and his chivalric responsibilities, young Haugenier retires from the world and enters into a secluded monastery to grapple with the meaning of divine love and service as a way of expiation.
Through Oldenbourg’s trinity of characters we experience the horrors and suffering of the medieval life. If you are in search of joy, romanticism, or courtly ballads full of love and hope, then look elsewhere. Oldenbourg paints with detailed strokes a medieval France full of strife, suffering, and heartache. The Cornerstone is a concrete and, at times, disturbing portrayal of humanity’s plight.